Empowering NGOs by their networks?

by Maaike Snel, Eric van Luxzemburgh and Bas Kohler

After reading three articles on the changing roles of NGOs we would like to summarize their thoughts on the networks between NGOs and between NGOs and governments.

Jordan and Van Tuijl in their paper "Political responsibility in NGO advocacy"( URL: http://www.oneworld.org/euforic/novib/novib1.htm ) give an overview of four different NGO-relationships. The spectrum of cooperation ranges from a hybrid interaction in which the NGOs have interlocking objectives to competitive interactions in which NGOs have opposing objectives. It may be clear that the first typology mentioned is a network in which the interaction is used productively and might exerce political influence. The latter illustrates the adverse situation.

Rutherford, in her article "Civil (dis)obedience and social development in the New Policy Agenda" (URL: http://www.idrc.ca/socdev/pub/documents/civilsociety.html#2 ) states that because of the emergence of effective NGO-networks their role in agenda setting plays a more and more significant role. Concerning the paper of Jordan and Van Tuijl an international NGO network has to mobilize and articulate peoples interests or concerns at different levels of decision making. Therefore NGOs have a political responsibility. The writers see this political responsibility as the perfect solution to fill the participation gap between transnational decision taking and local demands.

This participationgap can partly be explained by a process of globalization: more and more decisions which have an impact on local communities in developing countries are allocated and centralized to a transnational arena which has no democratic responsibilities towards the people which are affected by their decisions. Swyngedouw (1992) describes the double movement of globalization on the one hand and decentralization on the other, which he sees as one single process. The decentralization manifests itself in a declining role of national states as a provider of services to the local level, while NGOs are being designated a greater role on this local level. Yet, in the transnational arena, the major actors are still the national states, whereas their relative importance on the local level is declining. Recent literature is calling for a greater participation and influence of NGOs in the transnational arena.

This greater participation of NGOs in the transnational arena can be reached by better use of NGO-networks. This better use of the networks can be established by more political responsibility as Jordan and Van Tuijl argue. One of the seven areas of political responsibility they mention for NGO-advocacy, is the dividing of political arenas; it is important to explicitly recognize that there are various political arenas in which each NGO operates. "Recognizing who has expertise and knowledge in which political arena and respecting the boundaries established by that expertise is the first necessary act of accountability in a joint NGO advocacy effort" (Jordan & Van Tuijl 1998). Except for cooperation between NGOs we can also distinguish networks complying NGO-government interaction (governments-levels ranging from local to supra-national).

From the 1980s onward (according to Rutherford) NGOs have considerably expanded their activities in different segments of the social policy process. Even though the name "Non-Governmental" suggests the opposite, NGOs do often interact with governments. These relationships are often complex and not transparent. Rutherford writes about the level of national government: "...The various roles and responsibilities played by NGOs in the shifting arrangements between civil society and the state need to be carefully analyzed as opposed to simply presumed to be clear-cut". One of the problems is the complexity and heterogeneity of NGOs and the community-based organizations with whom they work. The political and social environment in which a government operates is equally important and determining.

One of the ways to improve the clarity of the process is by employing a network vocabulary according to Judge in "Global Self Organization" (URL: http://www.uia.org ). This would provide "powerful means for objectifying and de-mystifying the complexity of the organizational...." (Judge,1998).

To conclude, the participation gap which has emerged this last decade could be filled up by the NGO-movements. One of the ways they can enforce their position of negotiation is by representing themselves through better-working networks. One of the difficulties in this process is the complexity of the definition of NGOs. More study is required to fully understand the interaction between NGO and government.

Sebastiaan Köhler
Eerste Jan van der Hijdenstraat 98
1072VA Amsterdam

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Comments and suggestions:
Hari Srinivas - hsrinivas@gdrc.org